Here’s an example of remarkable foresight: Within two months of the end of World War I, the state of Tennessee began diligently collecting records from so-called “gold star families” — those that lost sons in the war.
Nearly a century later, those mementos were waiting in the Tennessee State Library and Archives when author Judith Morgan came looking for stories for her book, “Sumner County in the Great War: Let Us Remember.”
“It was heartbreaking,” Morgan said. “There were letters that had been written to the families. There were the original telegrams, in some cases, that the government had sent the families to notify them that their son had been killed.”
She drew from those primary source materials for a chapter about the toll on families. At the time, Morgan mostly browsed microfilm on site at the archives.
Starting now, this Tennessee Gold Star collection is digitized and searchable online by soldier’s name, county, or branch of service. And the state is bringing special attention to the records for the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I.
All told, more than 1,100 Tennessee soldiers are documented —about a third of those who perished.
In her research, Morgan found that nearly 40 Sumner County residents died in the war, and about half appear in the collection.
“Any time when you are going into the past and you lay your hands on an actual document that represents someone’s life, it is an emotional moment,” she said.
One of the most difficult things to read is a form letter that Tennessee officials sent to each family, she said. The letter told the families to be comforted that their sons had died in a noble cause that “will never have to happen again.”